An anatomical breakdown of garbha pindasana and kukkutasana
In this last post that wraps up an anatomical exploration of what I sometimes refer to as the “train wreck” in the Ashtanga primary series, we’ll break down two postures, garbha pindasana and kukkutasana. Remember that when I began this series of articles, I mentioned that one reason that this section of primary series can become a train wreck is moving too quickly through the postures that precede this more challenging section. So, as with the previous articles in this series, we’ll not only take a look at these postures with an anatomical lens, we’ll also look backward in the primary series to see where we can be working the actions that are important in these postures before we arrive here.
Let’s get started with some anatomy.
There are a few anatomical actions that we need to be concerned with in garbha pindasana and kukkutasana. We continue to explore the depth of our lotus because both of the poses require a deep external hip rotation and flexion of the hip joint. If we are doing the full expression of garbha pindasana, then we are also sliding our arms through the openings between the legs in our lotus and folding the legs into our chest. Folding the lotus towards the chest happens by flexing at the hip joints.
The rolling action in garbha pindasana also requires a sufficient amount of spinal flexion. As I often say, round things roll, and flat things flop. If you don’t or can’t sufficiently flex the hips and tuck your head in, your spine doesn’t round enough to roll on it. There are some other considerations below as well.
In kukkutasana, we undo that flexion enough to place our hands on the floor and press up to lift our body off the floor. Here we are required, once again, to access the armpits for pushing into the floor. This requires strength and stability of the shoulder girdle.
The intentions of garbha pindasana and kukkutasana are complex. Of course, there is the anatomical piece which continues to ask our hips to be open. As both garbha pindasana and kukkutasana require a full lotus if we are doing the full expression of these postures, we might say that these postures function more as a test of how much hip opening has happened so far in our work in primary series, than as an opportunity to work on opening the hips.
Finding your center of gravity
Putting the hips and lotus aside for a moment, garbha pindasana is about finding your center of gravity and working with it within gravity itself. I often ask the question, “Where are you rolling from?” Are you using your legs like a pump or can you find a more subtle place to generate that movement from? That more subtle place requires a connection to your center of gravity.
You could say that both garbha pindasana and kukkutasana give us an opportunity to work with the idea of resisting gravity. In garbha pindasana, we’re looking to roll around in a circle while maintaining the shape of the posture and resisting gravity in that way. In kukkutasana, we’re pressing into the floor to lift our whole body up and resisting gravity.
Technique: garbha pindasana
The full expression of both garbha pindasana and kukkutasana requires open hips — specifically in a way that allows us to do a full lotus position. We also need to have spent enough time opening our hips for lotus, that not only can we do lotus, we can create a deep enough lotus that there is some space between the legs that we can fit our arms through.
It’s important that we have really put the time in to access a comfortable deep lotus if we are going to add the steps of sliding our arms through our legs and then rolling back and forth. We pin the knees in place when we take the position of this posture, so if the hips are not sufficiently open to allow for that, we can put too much pressure into the knees and potentially even injure them. Be mindful that when you try to slide your arms through, you don’t create too much internal rotation at the knee joint.
Open the hips for lotus
We have many opportunities throughout the first ⅔ of primary series to work on opening the hips in gentler ways before we arrive at this posture. From triangle and revolved triangle, to standing half bound lotus, to the janu sirsasanas and the marichyasanas, we have many opportunities to work that action.
If we are finding that the depth of lotus needed for the full expression of this pose is not yet accessible, then we may want to revisit how we are working on opening the hips in other postures and spend some more time on the previous postures before we attempt the full expression of garbha pindasana.
Getting the arms through for garbha pindasana and kukkutasana
There is no one single magic trick for getting the arms through the legs in lotus in garbha pindasana. Start by pointing the hands and arms at an angle away from the hip joint, rather than straight through the legs toward the floor. Then rotate the forearm as you reach the arm through the legs. This will help you take advantage of all the space that’s available to you.
If you find that your arms are sticking to your legs, you can use some water from a spray bottle to help the arms slide through. If you are working with a teacher, your teacher can provide some resistance to help you bring the arms all the way through if you find your arms are getting stuck part way through. (You can find more tips on adjusting garbha pindasana in my Hands-On Adjustment Workshop.)
Rolling in the pose
Stay round! If you undo the roundness of the spine as you roll up, it will act like a break and stop you. This most commonly happens because the knees are moving toward and away from the body. If you allow them to move away, the back flattens (wrong pattern). As the knees curl in the spine rounds again.
Ideally, you would point your fingers toward the top of your head with your head and neck flexed or tucked in to maintain the roundness of the spine and then keep the hands there the entire time. As mentioned above, holding this position with the hands will force you to roll from a deeper more subtle place rather than from the superficial and obvious place of the extremities moving you up and down. I would suggest that this is a worthwhile cause. Just wait a few postures in the primary series and you’ll find that you’re rolling up again, just not with a lotus. From where will you roll then?
To be fair, people with scoliosis or with lower spines that don’t roll, will find out it’s nearly impossible to make themselves round as I suggest. There are always exceptions and you should of course modify to suit your body as much as necessary and as little as possible.
Start with forward and backward
If you’re getting stuck trying to roll in a circle, start with just rolling straight back and forward until you get the hang of it. I’ll often have students attempt to roll back toward their head and then roll back up to balancing. This typically creates that connection to the center of gravity that I’ve mentioned. By isolating this movement, we can also isolate the proprioceptive intelligence of just one action rather than trying to mix it together with the subtle turn required to go in a circle. It’s always a good idea to break things down into meaningful parts that teach you a piece of the larger pattern that may be required.
This is essentially the same action as utpluthih, but with the arms inside the legs. It may take time and practice to build the strength to lift up. When you first try to lift up after garbha pindasana, send your weight forward into the hands to get your body off the floor. If you’ve been practicing that action already in bhujapidasana, then you should be familiar with the direction that you need to shift your weight (forward into the hands) in order to get up.
Remember that the back straightening will act like a brake. Timing is everything, but make sure to lift the head and heart as well as press firmly from the armpits through the hands. You want to convert the depressors of the scapula into an elevator of the ribcage between the scapulae. You want to add this on to the already hard working triceps muscles!
Modifications in garbha pindasana and kukkutasana
If your lotus is not open enough yet for it to be a good idea to try reaching the arms through your legs for garbha pindasana and kukkutasana, or if you have knee issues that don’t allow for lotus at the moment, you can begin the work of these poses with a modification. You can simply wrap the arms around crossed legs to create the base of the posture and then do the rolling and lifting from there. You can also work on these postures with one leg in half lotus, if that feels accessible, and start to approach the lotus in that way.
Having said that, don’t let go of the other patterns that you want to start cultivating. If you’ve wrapped your hands around your arms, try to bind them with one another or use a strap to create a binding. Don’t just put your hands on your knees because then you will be more likely to use the hands and the knees as the pump that rolls you up and down (bad pattern). Create the tension of the binding, round the spine, and then use those to maintain the shape while you try to roll from your center of gravity.